Before the Revolution of 1917, Russian children received Christmas GIFTS from Baboushka, an old woman whose story is told in a Russian legend. Baboushka means “grandmother” in Russian. After the Revolution the government discouraged tales about folk characters like Baboushka, whose story refers to religious beliefs. Instead they promoted tales about completely secular characters such as GRANDFATHER FROST, who currently serves as RUSSIA’s gift bringer. With the fall of Russia’s Communist regime in 1991, many old beliefs and practices have been returning, and Baboushka may, too. Baboushka closely resembles the traditional Italian gift bringer, La Befana.
The Legend of Baboushka
A long time ago an old woman lived alone in a house by the road. She had lived alone so long that her days and her thoughts were filled only with sweeping, dusting, cooking, spinning, and scrubbing. One evening she heard the sound of trumpets and men approaching on horseback. She paused for a moment, wondering who they could be. Suddenly she heard a knock on her door. Upon opening it she discovered three noble men standing before her (see MAGI). “We are journeying to BETHLEHEM to find the child who has been born a King,” they told her. They invited Baboushka to join them. “I haven’t finished my work,” she replied “and the nights are so cold here. Perhaps it would be better if you came in by the fire.” But the strangers would not delay their journey and departed into the night. Sitting by the fire, Baboushka began to wonder about the child and regret her decision to stay home. Finally she gathered a few trinkets from among her poor possessions and set off into the night. She walked and walked, inquiring everywhere for the lordly men and the newborn King, but she never found them. Each year on Epiphany Eve (or TWELFTH NIGHT) Baboushka searches Russia for the Christ child. She visits every house, and even if she doesn’t find him, she still leaves trinkets for well-behaved children.
In one version of the tale, the wise men ask Baboushka the way to Bethlehem and she intentionally deceives them. In another, the wise men ask for lodgings for the night and Baboushka refuses them. In yet a third the Holy Family passes by her door on their journey from Bethlehem to EGYPT (see FLIGHT INTO EGYPT; HOLY INNOCENTS’ DAY). They beg hospitality from her, but she turns them away with nothing. In spite of their differences, each story concludes in the same way. Baboushka regrets her lack of concern, seeks out the people she has rejected, and eventually becomes a magical figure who travels the world at Christmas time bringing gifts to children.